Author: Shelagh Prosser


  • To create an organisation that provides equal opportunities for women and men, the possibilities open to them to participate and reach their full potential in the workplace should not be defined by their gender. (See What is gender equality?)
  • Evidence demonstrates that participation by men and women in the workplace is unequal. (See The disparity between men and women at work)
  • Gender diversity benefits the bottom line by motivating employees, encouraging creativity and minimising turnover. (See The importance of gender diversity)
  • The barriers to gender equality and diversity include gender bias, a lack of opportunity to balance work with personal responsibilities, the gender pay gap and occupational segregation. (See Barriers to equality and diversity)
  • Employers that understand the barriers to gender equality and diversity in their organisation are more likely to eradicate inequality and improve diversity. (See Monitoring)
  • Employers should review their policies and procedures to ensure that they give men and women equal opportunities to achieve their potential. (See Policies and procedures)
  • The senior leaders of an organisation have a significant influence on its culture, so they should support the gender-equality agenda. (See Leadership)
  • Giving assistance to new mothers may encourage them to return to work from maternity leave. (See Supporting parents)
  • Domestic violence is a workplace issue, so employers should raise awareness about it and give guidance to line managers on how to help employees who are the victims of abuse. (See Supporting employees experiencing domestic abuse)
  • Employers can make working conditions easier for women experiencing the menopause. (See Supporting employees during the menopause)
  • Reviewing job descriptions and person specifications, diversifying attraction techniques and revising how the organisation works with recruitment agencies are some of the ways employers can encourage women to apply for vacant posts. (See Recruitment and selection)
  • Training on sex discrimination and gender awareness, and taking steps to ensure that decisions are made transparently and objectively, can help to minimise gender bias. (See Addressing gender bias)
  • Employers can take action to address the absence of women in their industry and in senior roles. (See Addressing occupational segregation, Gender diversity on boards, Talent management and Mentoring and coaching)
  • Supporting internal and external women's networks can help an organisation to support its female employees. (See Networks)
  • Organisations can get involved with external campaigns to raise awareness about gender equality and diversity. (See Gender-diversity campaigns)


This section of the XpertHR good practice manual considers what employers can do to create a workforce that is inclusive of men and women. It discusses the business case for gender equality and diversity, and outlines some of the steps that employers can take to address the barriers to it.

What is gender equality?

The Equality Act 2010 prohibits employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex. However, to create a workplace that is equal for men and women, organisations must go further than this. The opportunities available to men and women to participate and reach their full potential in the workplace should not be defined or limited by their gender.

The European Commission defines gender equality as "the concept meaning that all human beings are free to develop their personal abilities and make choices without the limitations set by strict gender roles; that the different behaviour, aspirations and needs of women and men are considered, valued and favoured equally".

An organisation may need to treat men and women differently to achieve equal outcomes. For example, one construction company collected data that showed a low participation by women in the building crafts. It decided to collaborate with the construction sector skills council to provide information targeted at women to encourage them to apply for apprenticeships in the building crafts.

Employers should create an inclusive workplace for women and men, but there is evidence to show that many of the obstacles to achieving inclusivity relate to women more than they relate to men. It is for this reason that this guide focuses primarily on addressing the key difficulties that women face in entering and progressing in the workplace.

The disparity between men and women at work

Women make up 51% of the UK population and account for almost half of the workforce, but there is evidence to show that they are not given the same opportunities as men to participate in the workplace. For example:

  • in 2011, the TUC reported on the gender impact of the economic downturn, and found that there were 1,347,000 women who were economically inactive who wanted to work;
  • the Government Equalities Office reports that three-quarters of unemployed women have qualifications at or above GCSE grades A* to C, and that one in seven have degree-level qualifications, which is a waste of talent;
  • 40% of women work part time compared with 11% of men, but the TUC's 2011 report on the gender impact of the economic downturn noted that the number of women in involuntary part-time work is rising, at 701,000;
  • the TUC's 2011 report on the gender impact of the economic downturn showed that just under 40% of women's jobs were in the public sector compared with around 15% of men's jobs, which means that, as jobs in the public sector are generally less well paid than jobs in the private sector, the opportunities for women to participate in the workplace are less well paid than the opportunities for men;
  • the median gender pay gap in full-time hourly earnings (excluding overtime) is 9.4% (see The gender pay gap); and
  • there are more men than women in senior-management positions (see Occupational segregation).

That women are not given the same opportunities as men to participate at work means that employers are missing out on the skills women have to offer.

The importance of gender diversity

Employers that take steps to achieve an inclusive workplace for men and women are likely to have a more gender-diverse workforce. Gender diversity has business benefits:

  • Studies have suggested that there is a link between higher company financial performance and a higher representation of women on boards.
  • Employees who feel that their employer supports their career development, regardless of their sex, are more likely to feel valued and motivated, and therefore be more productive. Turnover is likely to be lower, which means that the organisation can retain key skills and knowledge and have lower recruitment costs.
  • Organisations that are gender diverse are likely to attract more women to the organisation, which means that they have a wider talent pool from which to recruit employees.
  • Organisations that are inclusive of men and women are likely to have improved creativity and innovation, because they are more able to draw on a wide range of perspectives and experiences. Gender-diverse teams enhance problem-solving and decision-making, not because men and women are intrinsically different, but because they offer a range of life experiences and perceptions, which can reduce the risk of "group think".
  • Women influence 80% of consumer-buying decisions, so are a key market for many businesses. Having women in decision-making roles can help organisations to target and influence women consumers. Organisations that are gender diverse are likely to gain a competitive edge through insight into new markets and the needs of a broader range of customers.

In 2006, the Women and Work Commission estimated that removing the barriers to women working in occupations traditionally performed by men, and increasing women's participation in the labour market, could be worth £15 billion to £23 billion, or 1.3% to 2% of gross domestic product.

Employers should understand and be able to articulate the business value that gender diversity brings to their organisation. Without this understanding, any actions that an organisation takes to promote gender diversity are likely to be part of a "tick box" approach, and have limited impact on the culture of the organisation. Monitoring employment practices by gender enables employers to identify trends and barriers to equality and diversity and provides an informed basis for action (see Monitoring).

Barriers to equality and diversity

The main barriers to creating a workplace where women and men have equal opportunities are gender bias, the lack of opportunity to balance work with personal responsibilities, the gender pay gap and vertical and horizontal occupational segregation.

These barriers may be heightened when gender is combined with another characteristic. For example, there is evidence to show that women from black and minority ethnic groups experience increased difficulties in their career development, particularly because of a lack of role models and mentoring opportunities. Therefore, employers should not take a "one-size-fits-all" approach to gender equality and diversity, and they should be sensitive to the differences that exist in the workplace.

Gender bias

Gender bias, which can be conscious or unconscious, concerns the assumptions that are made about the characteristics of women and men, for example the assumption that men are assertive, task orientated and committed to their career, and that women are nurturing and conciliatory and work best in a supportive role. It can influence perceptions of ability and behaviour, and lead people to make unfair and inaccurate judgments about, and apply different expectations to, men and women.

For example, a line manager's perception that women are not assertive may influence his or her decision about whether or not to promote a woman. Similarly, if a woman does not succeed in an occupation where women have traditionally been under-represented, this may reinforce a biased expectation that no women can succeed in that occupation, and can result in additional pressure being placed on other women to succeed.

Employers need to be aware of the cumulative effect of gender bias. For example, a view that a woman who opts to work flexibly on her return from maternity leave is no longer committed to her career can lead to her being sidelined for promotion and development opportunities, which will have an impact on how her career progresses.

Both women and men may make assumptions about gender roles, including assumptions relating to their own gender. This can be self-limiting; for example a woman might be reluctant to apply for a board position because she is influenced by a belief that only men become directors.

Gender bias can also work against men, most typically when, as fathers, they want to be more involved in caring for their child.

Inadequate work-life balance and the undervaluation of part-time working

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) first triennial review showed a significant difference in economic activity between men and women who have children aged under 16, with women over four times more likely than men to be economically inactive (26% compared with 6%). One of the reasons for this is that women bear the majority of the responsibility for the care of children. Further, when a relationship breaks down, the woman is more likely to take the main caring responsibility for any children. In 2012 the Office for National Statistics reported that women accounted for 92% of lone parents with a dependent child.

Women also bear the majority of the responsibility for elder care. Carers UK has found that, over their lifetime, seven out of 10 women will be carers and are more likely than men to be caring for children as well as an older relative. The phrase "the sandwich generation" is often used to describe employees who have caring responsibilities for a child and an adult dependant. Further, as families become more geographically dispersed, more employees are finding themselves caring for someone who lives far away. Juggling such demands alongside a full-time job can be extremely stressful.

The lack of affordable care provision and an inability to work flexibly can restrict the ability of people with care responsibilities to work. Further, for many women, the period when they are likely to want to build their career (when they are aged 25 to 40) coincides with the time when they have children. This can be when flexible working becomes a career necessity.

Although many employers have flexible working policies covering arrangements such as job-sharing and homeworking, the benefits of flexible working are not always fully realised, for either the employer or the employee:

  • Evidence suggests that, in many professions, flexible working is not an acceptable choice. For example, research by the Law Society in 2010 found a disconnect between expressed policies on flexible working and what is culturally acceptable in the profession. It found that, by not offering flexibility, legal firms risk losing a significant proportion of the talent available to them.
  • Research has shown that becoming a mother often results in the woman either being relegated to a lower-level (and lower-paid) job or resigning.
  • Flexible working is more common in non-managerial positions, as the perception (among some men and women) is that working flexibly is a career-limiting decision. For example, the EHRC report "Sex and power 2011" found that posts at the highest grades are generally advertised as being available on a full-time basis only.
  • The types of flexible working arrangements offered are often limited to part-time working and flexitime. However, there are a multitude of options that people can use to balance their work and family responsibilities.
  • The long-hours culture remains the norm in many sectors. In practice, an employee who takes up a part-time working arrangement may find him- or herself under pressure to fit a full-time job into the reduced hours. This is harmful to the employee's health and financial wellbeing.

Some employers are resistant to flexible working because they believe that it will be difficult to introduce operationally, place additional burdens on other employees, have a detrimental impact on customers and clients and affect the quality of work. However, research on flexible working conducted by XpertHR has found that just over one-third of survey respondents (30.1%) did not encounter problems when trying to implement a flexible working policy, and that most of the organisations surveyed (nine respondents in ten) experienced a number of advantages from the provision of flexible working pracitces. The majority of respondents experienced improved retention and increased employee engagement as a result of flexible working, and almost half of the organisations surveyed benefited from increased employee commitment and cost savings.

Balancing work and family life is a considerable challenge, not just for many women, but also for many men. Fathers increasingly want to share caring responsibilities more equitably with their partner and achieve a better work-life balance for themselves.

Women of all ages are more likely to be in part-time employment than men, and often have a non-linear career path. Part-time working as a form of flexible working can be undervalued financially and culturally, and can place women at a disadvantage when wanting to progress their career or improve their pay. For example, the EHRC report "Sex and power 2011" refers to a survey of NHS nurses that found that the career progression of part-time nurses lagged considerably behind that of full-time nurses.

The gender pay gap

Despite a decrease in the gender pay gap since the introduction of the Equal Pay Act 1970, there is still a substantial gap between the pay of men and women:

  • The Annual survey of hours and earnings 2016 conducted by the Office for National Statistics identified that the median gender pay gap in full-time hourly earnings (excluding overtime) is 9.4%.
  • The gender pay gap is 16.6% in the private sector and 11.3% in the public sector.
  • By sector, the highest gender pay gap for full-time employees is in the financial and insurance activities sector, where the gap is 33.6%.
  • By age, the gap is highest for full-time employees aged 50 to 59, where it is 16.3%, and lowest for those aged 22 to 29, where it is 0.8%..
  • By occupation, the highest gender pay gap is for skilled trades (25.1%) and lowest for sales and customer service staff (4%).

Many factors are given for the gender pay gap, including the impact of taking time out of the labour market to have children. However, research by the Government Equalities Office into the causes of the gender pay gap found that 36% of the gap could not be explained by such factors as men and women working in different industries or occupations, or having different levels of education. This suggests that barriers to women achieving equal pay are rooted in other causes, including discrimination and a difference in the evaluation of men's and women's worth. As long as women and men are not paid the same for equal work or work of equal value, they will not achieve equality in the workplace.

Occupational segregation

Occupational segregation based on gender impedes progress towards gender diversity in the workplace.

There are two types of segregation: vertical and horizontal. Vertical segregation is where the high-status roles and opportunities for progression in a particular industry are dominated by one gender (often defined as the "glass ceiling" for women). There is evidence to suggest that women are under-represented in senior executive and board positions:

  • The Institute of Leadership & Management reports that women hold around 22% of senior-management positions.
  • The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report "Sex and power 2011" states: "If women were to achieve equal representation among Britain's 26,000 top positions of power … 5,400 'missing' women would rise through the ranks to positions of real influence." It found that it will take 70 years to achieve an equal number of women directors in FTSE 100 companies, and 45 years to achieve equal representation in the senior judiciary.
  • There is evidence of an age disparity between men and women who are in management positions. Research by the London School of Economics in 2006 found that, at the age of 20, the same percentage of women and men hold management positions (5%) but, by the age of 45, the balance shifts to 23% of men and 11% of women.

In 2011, the Institute of Leadership & Management found that three-quarters of women believe that there are barriers to their career progression, and that these barriers do not relate only to work-life balance issues. It found that a lack of confidence was a key factor that led women to take a more cautious approach to applying for jobs and promotions. It also found that 27% of male survey respondents under 30 expected to reach director level within 10 years, compared with 15% of women, and that only 14% of women would apply for a role where they only partly met the criteria compared with 20% of men. Further, a CBI report "Room at the top" explains that the lack of female role models, particularly at senior level, can affect the career aspirations of younger women, and heighten perceptions of the difficulty of achieving success.

Horizontal segregation is where the workforce in a particular industry or sector is mostly made up of one gender. Women tend to be clustered into the "five Cs" occupations (catering, clerical, cleaning, caring and cashiering). The EHRC has found that women make up 77% of administrative and secretarial posts and 83% of personal services jobs, but only 6% of engineering roles, while men constitute around 90% of the construction sector's workforce. The roles where women are over-represented tend to be lower paid.

A joint TUC and Young Women's Christian Association paper found that occupational segregation is particularly apparent in apprenticeships, with women over-represented in hairdressing and childcare and under-represented, or in some cases entirely absent, from construction, engineering, electrotechnical and automotive apprenticeships. Segregation at the start of a woman's working life can have a long-term impact on her earning power.

The invisibility of women in some occupations and their under-representation on boards and at senior levels in organisations reinforces a stereotype of there being men's roles and women's roles and restricts the talent pool on which employers can draw both externally and internally.


Employers should create an organisational culture that gives equal opportunities to both sexes to participate in the workplace. Ad hoc activities and events are unlikely to establish such a culture. Any activities that an organisation engages in should form part of a wider business strategy to achieve an inclusive workplace culture for men and women.

A gender-equality strategy should be based on evidence. The employer should be able to articulate the particular business drivers in the organisation for a gender-diverse workforce. Monitoring enables the organisation to understand whom it is recruiting, to whom it is giving opportunities to progress through the ranks, and who is leaving the organisation, and the reasons for this. It will enable the employer to identify barriers to inclusivity, inform priorities for action and assess what impact the actions it is taking are having on employment patterns and the workplace culture.

Employers can start to build an awareness of actual and perceived barriers to inclusivity by gathering both qualitative and quantitative data on the representation and experiences of male and female employees. From 6 April 2017, private- and voluntary-sector organisations with 250 or more employees will be required to publish prescribed information about their gender pay gap on their website, and to upload this information to a government-sponsored website (the requirement applies to public-sector organisations with 250 or more employees from 31 March 2017).

Organisations of any size can go beyond this by analysing the gender make-up of the workforce, and the representation of women and men in: different pay grades, roles and occupations; job applications and appointments; applications for training and development opportunities; promotion rates; and grievances and disciplinary investigations. An organisation could also monitor the take-up of flexible working arrangements by gender and the return rate from maternity leave. Obtaining data on the number of women and men at all stages of the employment cycle, from recruitment to exits, will enable the employer to build a picture of where women and men are represented in the organisation and where there is a lack or absence of one gender.

Qualitative data, obtained from an employee engagement survey for example, should help employers to gain an insight into the workplace culture. An organisation could ask employees for their views and experiences of training and development opportunities, management behaviour, appraisal processes, opportunities for promotion, harassment, and bullying and discrimination. It could disaggregate the information by gender to determine if gender inequalities exist and, if they do, where, and to provide a focus for action.

For example, in 2010, one professional body held a series of roundtable discussions and in-depth interviews with experienced female members from across the profession to identify barriers to progression. The research highlighted five key themes: organisational culture; management practices within firms; perceptions of client expectations; resistance to flexible working; and the views of women themselves. The research enabled the body to produce recommendations and key actions for the sector.

To ensure that the exercise of gathering gender data is meaningful, employers need to analyse and act on it. Following a monitoring exercise, the board or equivalent senior-management body should put together a report on the comparative positioning of women and men at all levels of the organisation. Actions that the organisation could take following this analysis include setting qualitative targets to improve employment practices, for example implementing a flexible working policy, and quantitative targets, for example improving the return rate from maternity leave from 60% to 70%.

Employers should measure what progress they are making towards achieving inclusivity for men and women on an annual basis. This will enable them to assess year-on-year changes and trends.

The culture of an organisation is manifested through its external communications. Annual business reports and the company's website, for example, should include information on what actions the organisation is taking to improve inclusivity for men and women, and what progress it has made towards achieving this goal. Where the organisation is reporting its gender pay gap under the statutory duty, it could include information about its action plans and progress in the statement accompanying the report of its figures.

Organisations can also sign up to a voluntary framework introduced by the Government Think, act, report. This aims to encourage private- and voluntary-sector employers to improve transparency on gender equality, particularly in relation to the gender pay gap, by gathering evidence on the barriers to gender equality within their organisation, using this evidence to inform action and reporting publically on their findings.

Policies and procedures

One of the first steps to achieving a gender-diverse workplace is putting in place HR policies that give men and women equal opportunities and that treat employees according to what they can do rather than who they are. Employers should review the scope and content of all policies that risk discriminating against men or women, particularly those relating to:

  • recruitment and selection;
  • determining pay;
  • training and development;
  • discipline and grievances;
  • sickness and absence;
  • selection for promotion; and
  • harassment and bullying.

Employers should check that their maternity, paternity, adoption, ordinary parental leave and shared parental leave policies are up to date in relation to the law and good practice.

A lack of support for same-sex partners can result in gender inequality, for example where an employee wishes to support her female partner with childcare responsibilities. Employers should take care to ensure that same-sex partners are not excluded from policies supporting parents. For example, policies should make it clear that paternity leave covers leave for same-sex partners by using phrases like "maternity-support leave". Organisations such as Working Families and Family and childcare trust are useful sources of advice and information on this issue.

Employers should review the language of their policies and procedures. Some terms can imply gender bias, and their use risks undermining an employer's efforts to promote gender equality:

  • Gender bias can occur when the masculine pronoun "he" is used to refer to both sexes, because this can imply that women are excluded. Further, the order of words can imply that women are an afterthought, for example consistently referring to men first in phrases such as "men and women" or "his and hers".
  • Particular words such as "assertive", "leadership", "dynamic" or "caring" can have gender-specific associations.
  • Some phrases can be inappropriate in the workplace, particularly when applied to only one sex, for example using the term "girls" to describe female employees, but referring to male employees as "men".

Employers should ensure that any images used in policies reflect a gender balance.

Policies that appear neutral and objective can be subject to gender bias in their application and result in fewer women or men being recruited, promoted or retained, so organisations should train managers in how to apply them.

Pay and reward policies

Employers should ensure that their pay and reward practices are fair towards men and women. This includes:

  • checking policies on pay and benefits to ensure that they are fair, transparent and free of gender bias, for example in relation to the way in which jobs are rated or valued;
  • limiting local managerial discretion over pay;
  • monitoring by gender (and other factors, such as flexible working) the impact of decisions on pay; and
  • conducting equal pay audits to compare the pay of employees doing equal work and work of equal value to determine if there is a pay gap due to sex (see Equality and Diversity > Equal pay).

Under the Equality Act 2010, employers are prevented from enforcing pay secrecy clauses where an employee is discussing his or her pay to determine if differences exist that could be related to a protected characteristic, including sex. This does not prevent employers from prohibiting employees from discussing pay rates externally, for example with a competitor organisation.

Equality and diversity policy

Employers should adopt an equal opportunities and diversity policy. The policy should explain the prohibition on sex discrimination and emphasise the importance of providing equal opportunities in employment for both sexes, and include the organisation's strategy for achieving this. The policy will not in itself deliver gender equality and diversity, but it articulates the employer's commitment to achieving gender equality and diversity, sending a message to managers and employees that this is important to the organisation. The following can help to ensure that the policy is effective:

  • The policy should be accompanied by an action plan with goals and milestones. These will depend on the circumstances of the organisation and the results of its monitoring exercise, but could include, for example, targets relating to recruitment and the number of women on the board.
  • The board (or equivalent senior-management committee) is accountable for the performance of the organisation and sets the vision for the culture of the organisation. Therefore, it should be accountable for the policy, and there should be board-level scrutiny to determine the extent to which the commitments in the policy and the accompanying action plan are being implemented.
  • The organisation should review the policy on a periodic basis to ensure that it remains relevant to the business and takes account of the complexity of gender bias, developing case law and new practices and processes.

Flexible working policy

Although the right to request flexible working is available to all employees with at least 26 weeks' service, the opportunity to work flexibly can help many women and men to meet their caring responsibilities while continuing to work and develop their career. A flexible working policy can help to support employees who wish to work flexibly:

  • Employers should develop a policy on flexible working that explains the benefits of flexible working to the business, so that line managers adopt a positive approach to flexible working requests. Support for flexible working can, for example, improve employee commitment and productivity, because employees will not need to make a choice between their career and the person for whom they are caring. Where employees work flexibly by working unusual hours, this can enable the employer to respond to clients' needs more quickly, for example if it operates on a global basis.
  • The flexible working policy should offer a range of flexible working options, because different options suit different needs.
  • The flexible working policy should explain how to submit a request to work flexibly and the process for considering flexible working requests. This will enable employees to understand the process they are required to follow and help to ensure consistency when considering requests.
  • Some line managers assume that certain jobs cannot be performed on a flexible basis, or that flexible working will disrupt team dynamics or place an additional burden on them and their team in managing the arrangement. Keeping an open mind may help managers to find an arrangement that works. The flexible working policy should emphasise that line managers should be open to flexible working arrangements, and that, when considering requests to work flexibly, they should adopt an attitude of "why not do it" rather than "why should I". Toolkits and guidance incorporating practical case studies can help managers to develop the skills to manage teams with different work patterns.

Employers should promote the flexible working policy to employees and ensure that they can access it easily.

There are many other steps employers can take to encourage the take-up of flexible working. For example, one bank guarantees the availability of part-time work to all employees returning from maternity and paternity leave as a way of helping them to balance their caring responsibilities with their career. This development is part of a package of flexible working options that includes job-sharing and a one-year unpaid sabbatical for employees seeking an extended period of leave.

Endorsement from the board or equivalent senior-management committee is key to the successful implementation of the flexible working policy. For example, an organisation could appoint a director to champion the policy, and profile in the company's internal magazine senior managers who work flexibly, to help dispel the myth that flexible working is not suitable for management roles. The organisation could demonstrate its commitment to flexible working by taking part in initiatives such as Working Families National Work-Life Week in September. This can send a positive message to employees about the organisation's support for flexible working and provide the employer with an opportunity to demonstrate good practice externally.

The employer should find out on a regular basis whether or not the flexible working policy is being implemented effectively. It could ask employees for feedback, for example via an anonymous web-based survey, or obtain data on the take-up of flexible working, which could reveal discrepancies across the organisation.

An employee who wishes to make a request to work flexibly under the statutory procedure must follow a formal process. If the employer agrees to his or her request, it results in a permanent change to the contract of employment. Many employees would benefit from:

  • the ability to work flexibly on a short-term basis;
  • having their request to work flexibly dealt with quickly, outside the statutory process; or
  • less formal changes to their working pattern.

An informal approach to flexible working (in addition to a formal flexible working procedure) could help many employees to balance their care responsibilities with work and could be essential to helping them stay in work, particularly where care needs fluctuate. Examples of short-term or informal arrangements include permitting a carer to take five minutes out of the working day to call his or her dependant, or facilitating an employee's return to full-time work after maternity leave by gradually increasing her hours to help her test out childcare arrangements.

Employers could establish a scheme to enable employees to request to work flexibly on a short-term or informal basis. For example, one law firm's scheme enables employees to propose short-term changes to their working pattern to their line manager on an informal basis. The organisation promotes the scheme to employees via the intranet, with a dedicated section that hosts relevant FAQs, a message of support from the board and information about technology to enable remote working.

Some employers take the initiative to adjust working patterns to assist employees with care responsibilities. One food manufacturer, for example, does not schedule important meetings during half-term holidays, and starts senior-management strategy meetings at 10am to allow parents who wish to take their children to school to combine work with family responsibilities.

Carers policy

Often, employees who are carers for an adult dependant do not inform their employer about their caring responsibilities, because they fear that the employer might perceive them as being less committed to their work. However, an employer that does not know about employees' caring responsibilities is less likely to be able to support them, and a failure to assist employees with balancing work with care can lead to carers leaving the organisation.

Employers should develop a carers policy that explains their support for carers. This can encourage employees to be open about their caring responsibilities and come forward for support. The policy could also set out the flexible working options and flexible leave arrangements that are available, and provide information on sources of support and information for employees who are carers and their managers.

Harassment policy

Sex-related harassment or harassment of a sexual nature is likely to create a working environment that is unpleasant for the recipient and any witnesses to the behaviour. It may affect the victim's performance, motivation and confidence, and lead to an increase in sickness absence or a decision to resign.

Often, harassment relates to power, and is directed towards women in more junior roles. It can affect a woman's perception of her ability to progress in the organisation, and deter her from applying for a more senior position.

Harassment often occurs where there is a lack of awareness about the impact that such behaviour can have. If the employer does not challenge the behaviour, people may assume that it is legitimising it. Employers should therefore instil a culture of zero tolerance towards harassment.

To deter harassment, employers should develop a harassment policy that explains:

  • what sex-related harassment and harassment of a sexual nature is;
  • why it is important for the organisation to deter such behaviour;
  • that all employees have a responsibility to treat their colleagues with respect and dignity, and that if they harass a colleague, they could be personally liable;
  • what constitutes unacceptable behaviour;
  • the different types of relationships where harassment can occur, for example manager-to-employee, employee-to-employee and employee-to-manager harassment;
  • that harassment can include verbal harassment, physical conduct and non-verbal/physical conduct, including examples of each type of behaviour, for example physical advances, sexual jokes, stereotyping, displaying sexually explicit images and literature, graffiti, emails containing material of a sexual nature, sexual assault, isolation and gestures; and
  • that harassment does not have to be directed at an individual for that person to find it offensive, for example where, during a training session attended by male and female employees, the male trainer directs remarks of a sexual nature to the group as a whole that a female employee finds offensive.

Employees should feel comfortable about making a complaint where they have experienced or witnessed harassment. To encourage employees to raise a concern about harassment, the harassment policy should explain:

  • that employees will be supported where they raise a concern (including the sources of support that exist) to minimise fear of reprisals;
  • that detrimental treatment of employees who raise a concern is prohibited;
  • that complaints of harassment will be treated in confidence;
  • the formal procedures open to employees who wish to make a complaint;
  • the informal procedures open to employees who wish to make a complaint, because some employees may not feel comfortable about making a formal complaint; and
  • that the organisation will take complaints seriously and deal with them promptly and transparently.

Employers should protect their employees from harassment by a third party (for example a contractor, customer or service user). To deter third-party harassment, an employer could make third parties aware of its harassment policy. It could, as part of a tendering process, ask to see a copy of proposed contractors' harassment policy, incorporating this into contract-evaluation processes.

Employers should review their harassment policy on a regular basis, ensuring that it is up to date regarding any legislative changes and case law.

To ensure that its harassment policy has the desired impact on the workplace culture, an organisation should communicate its existence and location to employees through a range of mechanisms, including the employee handbook, induction materials, the staff newsletter and emails to the workforce. It should include training on the contents of the harassment policy as part of the induction process and other training sessions for employees. It is particularly important for the employer to train managers on the harassment policy, so that they feel confident about investigating harassment complaints and supporting employees who have made a complaint of harassment.

Employers should monitor the impact of their harassment policy. If an employer has an annual employee engagement survey, for example, this should include questions to gauge employees' perceptions about whether or not there is a gap between the rhetoric of the harassment policy and the reality of the workplace culture.


The Work Foundation report "Rising to the challenge of diversity" explains that focusing on process without considering the wider culture of the organisation can create a "rhetoric and reality gap". For example, an employer may have a good flexible working policy, but if the organisation values long hours and presenteeism, people may view flexible working as career limiting in practice and few employees will ask to work flexibly.

There is evidence to suggest that organisational culture is leading highly skilled and experienced women to opt out of corporate life to set up their own business. An Equality and Human Rights Commission report "Sex and power 2011" explains the reasons why women choose self-employment, including a desire for greater freedom and autonomy, and better work-life balance and professional development.

The leaders of an organisation should champion gender equality and diversity visibly, because this sends a message to the rest of the organisation that it is a business priority. If senior leadership on gender diversity is lacking, there is no incentive for employees further down the organisation to play their part. Leaders influence the culture of their organisation, so their behaviour should be congruent with stated commitments to gender diversity. Where the organisational culture works against the inclusion of both sexes, the senior leaders of the organisation should be prepared to challenge and change it.

Leaders can demonstrate their commitment to gender diversity by encouraging actively the development of talented female employees. They can do this by: acting as mentors (see Mentoring and coaching); visibly supporting women's networks (see Networks); taking firm action on occurrences of sexual harassment and sex-related harassment (see Harassment policy); taking steps to ensure that decisions are made on the basis of merit, not stereotypes (see Addressing gender bias); encouraging the creation of a more gender-diverse board and project teams (see Gender diversity on boards); being prepared to question the absence of women in key business forums; and asking for gender-disaggregated data to be included in business monitoring (see Monitoring).

Some organisations appoint a board member (or an equivalent-level senior manager) to be responsible for gender diversity, to provide a strategic lead on the issue. While having a board lead can be useful, promoting gender diversity should be the responsibility of all board members, so that it becomes part of the organisational culture.

Supporting parents

Aside from a policy on flexible working, employers can encourage gender diversity by establishing procedures that may encourage women to return to the organisation following maternity leave:

  • Keeping in touch with employees on maternity leave can help to maintain the bond between employer and employee, which can encourage employees to return to work after maternity leave. Keeping in touch can also help to ensure that the return is successful, including by enabling a shorter learning curve on return to work. An employee could, for example, use keeping-in-touch days to attend training sessions or special team meetings or events, which could help her to maintain links with her colleagues and an awareness of business developments during maternity leave. One innovative method of keeping in touch with employees on maternity leave is for the employer to provide a regular newsletter for them so that they are up to date on developments in the organisation and can find out about vacancies and other opportunities.
  • Employers could establish a buddying or mentoring scheme for women about to go on or returning from maternity leave. These arrangements can support women on their return to work, for example by helping them to build their confidence on return and giving them advice on balancing care with work. For example, an employer could offer a scheme whereby a woman who is about to go on maternity leave is paired up with someone working in a similar role who has already returned to work from maternity leave, with the aim of sharing experiences and helping to ease the new mother's return to the workplace. They could have face-to-face meetings before the employee's maternity leave, keep in touch using email and phone during maternity leave, and have face-to-face meetings on the employee's return to work.
  • Employers could arrange seminars or workshops for women returning from maternity leave, where they can meet other working mothers to discuss common issues of concern.
  • Employers could develop guidelines for managers on supporting employees returning to work from maternity leave, which could include guidance on planning their reinduction on return.
  • A lack of affordable childcare is one reason why many women do not return to work following maternity leave. Offering childcare vouchers can help employees to meet the costs of childcare, and have a positive impact on employee morale and productivity. Some employers provide on-site nurseries, or purchase places in an existing external nursery, as a way of recruiting and retaining talented female staff. On-site nursery provision can be particularly helpful for employees working shifts or atypical hours, who might have difficulties finding childcare to suit their working day.

Where the above arrangements are in place for women who take maternity leave, the employer should consider extending them to men and women who take shared parental leave.

Other steps employers can take to support working parents include:

  • establishing a policy on time off for dependants, to inform employees about their right to take unpaid time off work for dependants;
  • enhancing the right to take time off for dependants, for example by paying employees for the time off; and
  • enabling employees who work shifts to balance their job with the school run, school holidays and unplanned emergencies, by allowing them to decide between themselves how they will manage the demands of shift working.

Employers could bring together all of the relevant policies and sources of information and support for parents, including the flexible working policy and case studies giving examples of how employees balance work with care, on an intranet page dedicated to working parents.

Supporting employees experiencing domestic abuse

Domestic violence is a workplace issue:

  • Domestic abuse can have an impact on the workplace in terms of employee wellbeing and absence, particularly if the victim and perpetrator are both employees. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has found that domestic abuse costs UK businesses over £2.7 billion per year and that, in any one year, more than 20% of employed women take time off work because of domestic violence.
  • The EHRC has found that 2% of employed women lose their job as a direct result of domestic abuse.
  • It is estimated that 75% of women who experience domestic abuse are targeted at work. For example, an employee might receive threatening phone calls or emails at work, or be intimidated or physically assaulted at work when an abusive partner arrives at the workplace.

Employers can support employees who are the victims of abuse by establishing a domestic abuse policy and helping managers to address the problem of domestic violence where it is having an impact on the workplace. The domestic violence policy should:

  • define what domestic abuse is, and explain that it can occur between same-sex partners and in heterosexual relationships;
  • provide guidance to line managers on how to identify situations in which an employee may be the victim of domestic abuse, and how they can support the employee while respecting his or her privacy, for example by being flexible over working hours to enable the employee to seek external help;
  • cover what action the employer will take where both the victim and perpetrator of abuse are its employees; and
  • include sources of advice and information for employees who are victims of domestic violence, for example details of local agencies providing domestic abuse services.

Employers should raise awareness about domestic violence and their support for employees who experience it:

  • They should bring the domestic violence policy to the attention of all employees, for example on posters, by including it in induction training and by making it easily accessible on the intranet.
  • Written guidance and training for line managers will help to improve their understanding of the issue and give them the confidence to address it.

Where an employee assistance programme exists, the employer should check that it will offer support to employees who are victims of domestic violence.

Guidance on domestic violence is available on the EHRC and Women's Aid websites.

Supporting employees during the menopause

The TUC has produced guidance for employers on supporting women through the menopause, which explains that there are three-and-a-half million women over the age of 50 who are in work, and that for 80% of women who are experiencing the menopause there are notable changes to their body, with 45% having symptoms with which they find it difficult to deal.

Employers should recognise the importance of treating the menopause as a workplace issue:

  • Employers should deal with the menopause in the same way as other medical conditions when applying performance management and sickness absence procedures.
  • Failing to consider the difficulties that women may have with the menopause could amount to a breach of health and safety legislation.
  • Supporting women who are experiencing the menopause can help to ensure that they remain productive during this time, and can increase their loyalty and commitment to the organisation.
  • Many male employees wish to support their female partners who are experiencing the menopause, so an organisation that provides information on the menopause can help them to do this.

Working conditions can exacerbate menopausal symptoms, for example where the room temperature is fixed and it is not possible to open a window, or the uniform policy does not allow flexibility to cope with hot flushes and sweating. Employers can make working conditions easier for employees experiencing the menopause, for example by:

  • being flexible about toilet breaks;
  • offering shower facilities;
  • offering flexibility where employees wear a uniform, where the style and material of the uniform is exacerbating symptoms, for example because it is made out of a synthetic material;
  • providing better ventilation or fans;
  • giving more access to natural light; and
  • providing chilled drinking water.

The menopause is not a widely discussed subject and can be misunderstood. Some women find it difficult to discuss the menopause with their employer, and may feel that they need to take time off work to deal with their symptoms without disclosing the real reason to their manager. Employers can raise awareness about the issue among employees by:

  • establishing and publicising a policy on supporting employees with the menopause;
  • producing additional guidance, which could be available on the intranet, to enable employees who wish to understand the menopause to read further about the subject;
  • providing training to line managers about the menopause, including how the menopause can affect work and what they can do to support women who are experiencing it; and
  • raising awareness about what facilities are available to help employees experiencing the menopause.

Other steps that an employer could take to assist women experiencing the menopause include ensuring that:

  • employee assistance programmes and occupational health advisers are able to offer support to women who contact them for advice about the menopause;
  • sickness absence procedures cover menopause-related sickness absence; and
  • risk assessments take account of the needs of menopausal women.

Recruitment and selection

To attract job applicants from as wide a talent pool as possible, recruitment and selection practices should provide equal opportunities for men and women.

Job descriptions and person specifications

Employers should review job descriptions and person specifications to check for gender bias. They should:

  • remove any requirements that are not objectively justified;
  • consider whether or not the words used imply a preference for one gender; and
  • consider whether or not there is an emphasis on a number of years' experience rather than skills, because this could exclude women who have taken time out of the workplace to care for children or other dependants.

Job advertisements

Employers should consider the images and language in job advertisements to ensure that they do not imply a preference for either a male or a female applicant. They should use gender-neutral terms, taking care to avoid words traditionally associated with masculinity, for example "strong" or "dynamic".

Job advertisements should make clear that opportunities are open to all suitably qualified applicants. An employer may attract more women candidates to the organisation if it states in the job advertisement that it is open to receiving requests for flexible working. It could include details of its flexible working policy in the application pack given to candidates.

Recruitment agencies

Where an employer uses a recruitment agency, it could explain to it that applications from people who wish to work flexibly are welcome, and that it should put forward suitable candidates who want to work flexibly.

The employer should ensure that the recruitment agency is aware of the organisation's equality and diversity policy. It could ask to see a copy of the agency's equality and diversity policy to check that it has the same approach.

Where the employer uses an executive search agency for board appointments, it should ensure that the agency has signed up to the Voluntary code of conduct for executive search firms. This was introduced in 2011 to improve the representation of women on boards and sets out principles that agencies should observe. The employer could also check whether or not the agency has received accreditation for its work on gender diversity on boards under the Enhanced voluntary code of conduct for executive search firms.

Diversifying attraction techniques

Where an employer has identified that there is a gender imbalance, either in particular occupations or at certain levels of the organisation, it could diversify its recruitment channels. For example, there are a range of networks set up by women working in professions where they are under-represented, such as Women in Architecture and Women in Logistics UK. They often hold events for members, and invite employers to speak about their industry and the opportunities in their organisation. Some networks focus on promoting gender equality in the workplace, including Women and Manual Trades, a membership and training body supporting women entering and working in construction and the built environment, and WISE, which works with employers that want to improve gender equality and diversity in science, engineering and technology. These and other networks may be able to advertise vacancies to their members, and may work with employers on job brokerage programmes and work placements to attract women into a particular sector.

Occupational requirements

Employers can, in very specific circumstances, require a jobholder to have a characteristic that is protected under the Equality Act 2010, for example they may be able to require job applicants to be male. This is known as an "occupational requirement". Employers that wish to apply an occupational requirement should comply with the provisions of the Equality Act 2010.

The Employment statutory code of practice states that an occupational requirement must not be a sham or a pretext and that there must be a link between the requirement and the job. It provides examples of situations in which an occupational requirement may be used in relation to sex, for example where an organisation requires someone to be female for reasons of privacy or decency or where personal services are being provided. It gives the example of a women's refuge, which lawfully provide services to women only, as being able to apply a requirement for all its employees to be women.

Before an employer applies an occupational requirement in relation to sex, it should consider whether all of the duties of the job need to be performed by a person of that sex, or if an existing worker of the required sex could perform the aspects of the job that require a person to have that gender.

An employer that applies an occupational requirement should make this clear in the job advertisement so that potential applicants are aware of it and do not waste their time by applying if they do not meet the requirement.


Employers should train employees involved in recruitment and selection to understand how conscious and unconscious bias can affect the process, and how stereotypes influence decision-making. For example, some managers might not consider a man for a caring role because they hold a perception about male attributes. They should train interviewing panel members to avoid asking questions relating to sex, for example asking a woman about her caring responsibilities.


The content and scoring mechanisms of selection tests, and the way in which candidates are treated during testing, should not be biased towards one gender. Employers should ensure that employees are judged against gender-neutral criteria. Test validation, the process of ensuring that tests are designed to assess an individual's potential or actual ability to do or be trained to do a particular job, is important. Employers that wish to design their own selection tests should seek advice on avoiding gender bias.

Selection tests should be relevant to the changing needs of the job, for example it would be inappropriate for an employer that has traditionally tested candidates' ability to lift heavy objects to continue doing so if most of the lifting is now performed mechanically.

Monitoring test results to check whether or not the results of one sex are better can help an employer to determine if its tests are gender neutral.

Addressing gender bias

Conscious and unconscious gender bias can undermine organisational values and workplace policies. Raising awareness about it, and improving decision-making processes, can help to minimise its impact.

Employers should train their workforce, including senior managers, line managers and employees, on their legal responsibilities in terms of sex discrimination. They should also receive gender-awareness training, including recognising discrimination and harassment, understanding what is and is not appropriate behaviour and differentiating myth from reality. This should be an integral part of an organisation's equality training programme. Awareness training can minimise the potential for workplace conflict that can arise from misunderstandings and stereotypes, and engender an atmosphere where all employees are treated with respect.

The organisation should include training on conscious and unconscious gender bias as part of gender-awareness training. This is particularly important for managers, because gender bias can have an influence on decisions and behaviour, for example on how performance appraisals are conducted. Raising awareness among employees of their own unconscious bias and how this may affect their behaviour can also help to bring about change.

In addition to rolling out a programme of gender-awareness training, employers can take steps to control the impact of gender bias by deterring, where possible, tendencies to make snap decisions:

  • There should be objective criteria for making management decisions, which should be widely available. For example, where managers are responsible for deciding who should be involved in a project, there should be a brief of the skills required to be a part of the project team. This will improve the transparency of the organisation's decision-making, and can help managers to make decisions on the basis of talent rather than sex.
  • There should be written records of the process managers take to reach decisions.
  • Managers could receive training on reversing the gender of the subject in a decision to see if they would have made the same decision had that person been of the opposite sex.

Employers could include promoting gender diversity in managers' performance objectives. This can help to close the gap between an organisation's policies and what people do on a day-to-day basis, because it can underline the requirement for managers to be proactive, and encourage personal accountability for gender diversity.

Addressing occupational segregation

One of the key barriers to achieving gender diversity in organisations is the scarcity of women in some occupations and in senior-management positions. Employers can take steps to address occupational segregation:

  • Schools: In many sectors, taking action to address occupational segregation needs to start in schools before girls and boys make career choices. Employers that are keen to tackle a gender imbalance in their industry could establish links with primary and secondary schools and colleges to help raise young people's awareness about different occupations and industries and dispel stereotypes and misperceptions. Offering work experience, an opportunity to shadow a senior executive and "taster" days are practical ways in which employers can work with schools and colleges to broaden young people's career aspirations.
  • Positive action: The Equality Act 2010 permits employers to take positive action in certain circumstances. For example, where participation by one gender in an activity (for example a particular role) is disproportionately low, an employer may take action that is a proportionate means of enabling or encouraging persons of that gender to participate in the activity. To take advantage of this provision, the employer needs evidence that these circumstances exist. It could not, for example, use this provision to encourage women to apply for entry-level primary teaching roles if they already make up over 70% of primary teachers. The Employment statutory code of practice gives mentoring, shadowing and training targeted at specified disadvantaged groups as examples of the measures that an employer may take. For example, where a bus company identifies from its monitoring data that women are under-represented as bus drivers, it could make clear in its next recruitment exercise that applications from women are welcome, or hold an open day for potential women applicants at which they can meet women bus drivers, to encourage women to apply to the organisation. Employers that wish to take positive action should comply with the requirements of the Equality Act 2010.
  • Apprenticeships: Employers could take steps to address occupational segregation when promoting apprenticeship opportunities, by taking care not to reinforce perceptions. For example, an organisation's website should not include pictures depicting only women as hairdressers or only men as engineers.
  • Recruitment: To encourage women to apply to their organisation, employers could work with sector-specific female business networks on promotional activities (see Recruitment and selection), or conduct a recruitment campaign in a women's magazine while continuing to advertise in the national press.
  • Women role models: Where women are in senior or non-traditional roles, employers could encourage them to act as a role model for other women. An employer could, for example, ask a woman in such a position to lead a lunchtime session on career development, or to become involved with external recruitment activities. It could invite external women who are experts in a particular field to speak at company events and conferences. The decision to be a role model must rest with the individual, and it is important that she does not feel pressurised to perform additional duties that may have an impact on her ability to perform her core work. Taking this into consideration is particularly important where women are under-represented in the organisation, which inevitably means that the demands fall on just a few women.
  • Communications: Corporate communications, for example marketing materials, should reflect a gender balance.

Gender diversity on boards

Where there is a disparity between men and women in board positions, the employer should take steps to address this. There is evidence to suggest that having women on boards increases organisational performance. This is why the need to make progress on increasing the number of women on boards is on the agenda of most large companies.

Evidence suggests that gender-diverse boards perform better provided that there is a "critical mass" of women on the board to avoid their being isolated or seen as token appointments. There is a risk that having only one or two females on the board places unrealistic expectations on them to change the culture of the organisation. Research has found that the tipping point for influencing a board's performance is when there are at least three women on the board. It is also important that the roles that female board members perform are diverse and that they are in executive positions.

There are pros and cons to introducing a quota for the number of women on a board. Some men and women view quotas as patronising to women, and think that they run counter to the merit principle and risk setting women up to fail. Others argue that quotas are the only way for organisations to make progress. The UK Government has not introduced a quota for the number of women on boards. However, organisations should bear in mind legislative and voluntary developments relating to the representation of women on boards:

  • The government-commissioned report by Lord Davies made 10 recommendations on how to increase the number of women on the boards of FTSE-listed companies.
  • Pursuant to Lord Davies' report, the Government has decided to implement requirements relating to the disclosure by quoted companies of the number of women on their board, in senior executive positions and in the organisation as a whole.
  • The EU has published proposals to address the lack of women on boards.
  • Companies should bear in mind the provisions of the UK corporate governance code. The code requires companies to explain in their annual report their policy on boardroom diversity, to consider diversity as a factor when evaluating the effectiveness of boards, and to conduct the search for candidates with due regard to the benefits of diversity.
  • Organisations could sign up to the 30% Club. The 30% Club comprises chairs who are committed to achieving at least 30% senior women leaders in companies. Actions that the club is taking include raising the profile of the issue of women on boards, collating research, providing information and support to its members, motivating other chairs and working with initiatives such as the FTSE100 cross-company mentoring programme and executive search agencies.

Improving the appointment process to the board, including the transparency of the process, is a key factor in addressing the gender imbalance on boards. Actions employers can take include:

  • performing a skills audit of existing board members to identify gaps in skills;
  • developing selection criteria based on competencies rather than number of years' experience, because this can work to the disadvantage of women;
  • requesting a diverse "long list" from executive search agencies and challenging them on their track record on diversity (see also Recruitment and selection);
  • advertising board positions to open up the process to talented women from other fields; and
  • improving the diversity of the internal talent pipeline (see Talent management).

Talent management

One factor in the under-representation of women on boards is the lack of gender diversity that often exists in the talent pool below board level. Employers' approach to succession planning and talent management is critical to developing future women executives.

Employers should assume that if they are recruiting talented men and women they should progress through the organisation in proportionate numbers. If this is not happening, they should identify where the barriers are and take action to remove them:

  • Talent management procedures should be transparent and based on objective criteria so that people understand how decisions about career development opportunities are made, and feel confident that appointments are made on merit, not personal preference or bias.
  • Employers should review career pathways for gender bias. For example, they should determine whether or not an unbroken career history influences perceptions of an individual's suitability for promotion, or if is there a minimum length-of-service requirement before employees are considered for promotion. Favouring a linear career path will have a disproportionate negative impact on women, because they are more likely to have taken time out of the workplace due to caring responsibilities. Employers need a more flexible approach to identifying talent, with skills and ability as the determining factors, not "time served".
  • Where one gender is under-represented in senior roles, the employer should consider taking positive action measures, for example reserving places on management development training programmes for the under-represented group and encouraging them to apply to the programme (see Addressing occupational segregation).
  • Informal opportunities for career development can have an influence on employees' career prospects. For example, the opportunity to work on a special project, give a presentation, or be part of a team pitching for business, can give an employee a chance to demonstrate his or her skills and abilities, and raise the employee's profile in the organisation in an informal manner. Employers should review who is accessing such opportunities.
  • Evidence suggests that women can deselect themselves for senior development opportunities due to a lack of confidence and absence of senior women as role models. A study by McKinsey & Company highlights a survey of MBA students, where 70% of female respondents rated their performance as equivalent to their colleagues' performance, and 70% of male respondents rated their performance as better. The study suggests that minimising their contribution can make it more difficult for women to assert their talent and gain recognition. Employers can help to address confidence issues by organising events that promote women in leadership. For example, the civil service "Women into leadership" conference aims to enhance leadership opportunities for women. Attendees hear from inspirational women of all grades and levels, within and outside the civil service, and are offered hands-on advice and coaching on how to develop their career. An employer could offer targeted development programmes to help women enhance their assertiveness skills and take control over their career, such as The Springboard Women's Development Programme, which was originally developed for the BBC and has been used by over 180,000 women worldwide.

Mentoring and coaching

Many organisations offer mentoring and coaching programmes to talented employees to help them advance their career. A mentor could, for example, set aside time to meet with his or her mentee by fixing a weekly or monthly date in the diary, or allow the mentee to spend a day work shadowing him or her. Employers that wish to establish a mentoring or coaching programme need to plan it carefully and promote it to employees to ensure that it has maximum impact and avoids the risk of gender bias.

Research by Opportunity Now has found differences in how men and women benefit from mentoring schemes. Women are more likely to have a mentor who acts as a coach and provides a sounding board, whereas men are more likely to have a mentor who acts as a sponsor and takes an active role in championing their career. Giving formal recognition to a mentor's role could help to change this. Because more men than women are in senior positions and are able to act as a mentor, Opportunity Now suggests that mentoring schemes could be more effective if they were assessed on the basis of how successful a woman's male mentor has been in supporting her into a senior position.

Organisations could take positive action by targeting mentoring and coaching programmes at women where they are under-represented at senior levels of the organisation (see Addressing occupational segregation). Where mentoring or coaching is targeted towards women, this should not imply that such programmes are about "fixing" women so that they can progress. The purpose should be to provide opportunities to ensure that women can give their best and to remove organisational barriers and bias. The organisation could use promotional material to ensure that this message comes across. It should ensure that mentoring opportunities are not offered in isolation, and that there is a portfolio of opportunities to help people progress their career.

Some organisations have introduced reverse mentoring. This allows senior managers to get a better insight into the barriers that junior employees face to their career development, by pairing up junior mentors with senior employees. For example, in one large financial organisation, each member of the executive team is mentored by a colleague of the opposite sex who is one grade below him or her. This has proved extremely successful in developing executives' understanding of gender equality.


Internal women's networks can provide a means of mutual support for female employees, particularly where they are under-represented in the organisation or their role. They provide a space for senior women in an organisation to mix with more junior women to offer them informal advice on their career planning.

Networks can also be a source of information for employers that want to understand the barriers that women face in the workplace, and how to tackle them. They can provide a means for employers to canvass the views of female employees on workplace issues and the organisation's policies. Some networks are willing to act as a source of advice for managers who want to support women in their team.

Internal networks operate in different ways, although they are usually self-managed. Some are formally constituted, with a chair and steering group to organise regular meetings, events, training and newsletters, while others are more informal, acting primarily as a support group.

Where a women's network exists, the employer should ensure that it receives the same level of support as other staff networks. The employer could support its staff networks by providing a dedicated space on the intranet for them to advertise their presence, and providing resources, for example money, time and venues for meetings, to help members run their network.

Employers could encourage their female employees to join an external sector-specific network, for example the European Professional Women's Network and the Women's Engineering Society. External women business networks provide opportunities for women to work across geographical and industrial boundaries, make new connections and learn from others, so they can be a good way for women to develop their career. Networks engage in a variety of activities, for example organising networking events and conferences, providing information that may be of use to their members, such as information about job opportunities, sending their members regular newsletters, and offering bursaries, and mentoring and other development opportunities to their members. Employers could provide information on relevant networks, and a link to their websites, on the intranet, and get involved with their activities (see Recruitment and selection).

Gender-diversity campaigns

Employers that wish to demonstrate their commitment to the inclusion of both sexes, particularly in relation to recruiting, retaining and progressing female talent, should consider getting involved in local and national initiatives that promote equality for women. Some employers mark International Women's Day, the aim of which is to celebrate the economic, social, cultural and political achievements of women. Over one million people attended the first International Women's Day in 1911, and it is now a global celebration and a national holiday in around 25 countries. Supporting such campaigns can provide a focus for male and female employees to explore and discuss gender issues pertinent to their industry. Examples of actions that employers can take to get employees involved include organising lunchtime events with prominent women speakers, holding roundtable discussions to debate the gender dimension of business issues, for example the composition of company boards, and providing information on the intranet.

Employers could also consider participating in campaigns like "The Times Top 50 Employers for Women". Achieving such recognition sends a positive signal to existing female employees that they are valued, and referring to the award in recruitment material can enhance the employer's appeal as an employer of choice. The Times awards list is managed by Opportunity Now, an employer-led gender-diversity campaign. Opportunity Now has over 250 members to whom it provides advice and support on best practice in gender equality. It also hosts its own annual awards, the "Opportunity Now excellence in practice awards".

Where employers participate in these campaigns, it is important that they involve all employees, particularly male employees, in the debate about gender equality and diversity, to avoid it being perceived as a "women's issue" and at risk of being ignored.

Case study

An employer with a predominately male workforce has, for the first time, promoted a woman, Sylvia, to a supervisory role. Although Sylvia has worked in the company for some time, she has not worked directly with the team that she has been appointed to supervise.

Shortly after starting her new role, Sylvia notices an increase in the number and prominence of "girlie" calendars, and that boxes are frequently left blocking the entrance to the female toilets. There is no evidence of who is responsible for this, so she decides to raise the matter at a team meeting and asks for it to stop. No one says anything, but the next day soft porn images are left on Sylvia's workstation. She is offended by this, but decides that the best course of action is simply to throw the material away. A couple of days later more material appears. Once again, Sylvia throws the material away, but feels that the situation is undermining her position as supervisor, and feels intimidated. She wants to get on with her job and would prefer to deal with the matter informally, but does not think that raising it again at a team meeting will have any impact. Sylvia feels that she has no choice but to raise the matter with Tom, her line manager.

Tom meets Sylvia to discuss her complaint. Although Sylvia is not able to identify who is responsible, she describes what has happened to her and how she has tried to deal with it. Tom listens, but is not sure what action to take, because he has never had to deal with this sort of thing before. Following the meeting, Tom consults the company's HR manager, Grant, and they agree that they need to investigate further. They speak to everyone in Sylvia's team and find evidence that several people have been involved in the harassment. The perpetrators argue that they had only been "having a laugh" and that they did not know that Sylvia would be upset by their actions.

Tom gives the perpetrators of the harassment a verbal warning and explains that any further instances of harassment are likely to lead to further disciplinary action.

Although Sylvia's complaint is the first of its nature in the company, it shows that employees are unaware that such behaviour is inappropriate in the workplace and can constitute harassment, and that the absence of a harassment policy and procedures means that managers do not know how to deal with complaints of harassment. Grant believes that action is needed urgently, particularly to ensure that women feel accepted in the company and confident that if they progress into more senior roles they will be treated with respect.

Grant's first step is to develop a policy for preventing and tackling harassment. He puts together a policy that: provides a definition of harassment; explains the different forms harassment can take; outlines the impact that harassment can have on the victim and the organisation; and explains the responsibility of staff to adopt appropriate workplace behaviour. It states that harassment is unlawful and that the organisation will not tolerate any instances of harassment. The policy outlines informal and formal procedures for dealing with harassment, makes clear how complaints will be investigated, and sets out the arrangements for monitoring the policy.

The next step is for Grant to secure the board's buy-in to the policy. He explains to the board the impact that instances of harassment can have on the business in terms of reputation, productivity, morale and cost. The board endorses the policy and a board member agrees to sponsor it to give its introduction in the workplace greater impact.

To ensure that all employees are aware of the company's approach to harassment, Grant and the HR team put together a promotional campaign to support the introduction of the harassment policy. This includes posters, an email to all staff and a briefing for managers to include in their team meetings. The team puts the policy on the company's intranet so that staff can access it at all times, and includes it in induction training and supervisory and management training programmes.

Sylvia's sexual harassment complaint has also drawn attention to the need to improve awareness of the prohibition of sex discrimination and the importance of gender equality. The board tasks Grant with putting together a plan of how to meet this need.

Key references

Toolkit on mainstreaming gender equality in EC development cooperation
The gender impact of the cuts - a year on
Annual survey of hours and earnings
Ambition and gender at work
Sex and power 2011
The bottom line: Corporate performance and women's representation on boards
Flexible working provision and uptake
Financial services inquiry
Apprenticeships and gender
Supporting women through the menopause
Critical mass on corporate boards: Why three or more women enhances governance
Women on boards
UK corporate governance code
Women matter: Gender diversity, a corporate performance driver
What holds women back: Women and men's perceptions of barriers to women's progression